Survey results: COVID-19’s financial impact on the fire service

How fire departments are managing staffing, non-response services, purchasing and travel impacts, plus decisions related to grant funding


The fire service is already starting to see the financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, with terminations, pay cuts and even retirements to stave off layoffs.

To better understand the financial challenges facing departments, we surveyed the FireRescue1 community about the financial impacts they expect to face at their departments.

Respondent highlights

Survey respondents reflect a range of fire service personnel from a relatively equal breakdown of department types:

  • Specifically, 28% of respondents are fire chiefs, 24% are firefighters, 19% are company officers, 15% are chief officers, with 14% identifying themselves as another rank.
  • These members represent volunteer departments (41%), career departments (33%) and combination departments (26%).
  • In terms of department size, 58% of respondents work for departments with 11-50 members, 16% for departments with 51-100 members, 14% for departments with 101-500 members, 8% for departments with more than 500 members, and 4% for departments with 10 or fewer members.

Financial feedback – the questions

The financial impact on fire departments will be determined, in part, by the breakdown of the departments’ funding sources. We asked the community to identify their department’s primary source of funds. The results: 50% answered general taxes, 27% fee/assessment/property tax mix, 13% fundraising, 9% other sources, and just 1% grants. The low grant number is interesting, as we’ll see below in our review of grant funding related to the pandemic.

We asked: As a result of the pandemic and the likely economic impact, do you expect your department to experience staffing reductions? (Reduction could be any reduction in force that may take the form of layoffs, attrition without replacement, or hiring freezes.) You answered:

It’s reassuring to see that nearly half of all respondents did not expect staffing reductions.

We asked: Do you expect your department to cut/eliminate some or all non-response services (e.g., fire prevention and training)? You answered:

Nearly 50% of respondents plan to cut all or some non-response services, still highly valuable to firefighters and the community. As Linda Willing reminds in her article “Time-traveling to remember your pre-COVID-19 priorities”: “Just because a crisis has necessarily diverted attention and resources in the short term does not mean that those goals and priorities were not important. It may not be possible to fulfill them in the way you expected, at least for now, but they should not be forgotten either.”

More specifically, we asked: Which non-response services do you expect your department to reduce or eliminate? (Check all that apply) You answered:

I offer resources for managing the impact of cutbacks to non-response services here.

We asked: Which purchases do you expect your department to delay or cancel? (Check all that apply) You answered:

FireRescue1 Executive Editor Fire Chief Marc Bashoor notes that it’s not surprising that apparatus tops this list, with equipped custom engines in the $750,000 range: “If you are operating with a good rotation of equipment to maintain your apparatus NFPA-age standards, you should generally be able to survive with a one-season break in that supply. The adverse impacts of delayed apparatus purchase will become exponentially worse year over year, so getting back on track is critical.”

Bashoor says training is typically an easy budget-ax target, adding, “I encourage you to prioritize online and local opportunities that may be free or at least cost less.”

Critical safety equipment and gear should be one of the last things you have to shut down, Bashoor says: “When you’re cutting the marrow from the bone, you know it’s really bad.”  

As he explains in “The fire service budget tsunami is coming,” Bashoor encourages chiefs to prioritize expenditures early.

We asked: Do you expect your department to delay hiring of new paid or volunteer firefighters? You answered:

“Considering that personnel costs typically make up 70% or more of departments budgets, it’s somewhat surprising that this high a percentage of respondents (43%) don’t expect hiring or membership interruptions,” Bashoor says. “Even in volunteer organizations, the costs associated with membership and outfitting new members make up a large amount of expense.”

The chief adds that as the economy limps along, “like dominos, the fiscal fallout will stretch revenue streams for even the most robust of departments,” and he urges chiefs to ensure that they have contingency plans for potential reductions in minimum staffing numbers, or even worse, the need to shut down low-volume service locations.

Bashoor adds that the recent decision to expand the FY 2019/2020 SAFER grant payments to 100% for three years stands to have significant impact on departments that receive those grants and are able to maximize those opportunities.

We asked volunteers, specifically: As a result of the pandemic, have you seen a change in your typical staffing response? You answered:

Fewer members responding shows us a few things, Bashoor says: “First, more people are taking this risk serious, for themselves and their families, and therefore staying home to avoid community risk that could easily spread to their family. Second, many more people are out of work, which means they actually have less ‘free time’ to spend volunteering.”

We asked: Which types of travel do you expect your department to limit or cancel? (Check all that apply) You answered:

Travel has long been considered a go-to budget cut, as the costs can be extensive, with flight, hotel, car, registrations, meals and more. Fortunately, many canceled conferences are holding virtual events and connecting with attendees in other ways.

Grant funding

We asked three grant funding-focused questions as well. You answered:

Lasting change

Our final question: What pandemic-driven changes being made in your department do you believe will become permanent? Some of your answers:

  • Fundraising
  • Fire prevention inspections
  • Off-site training
  • Building inspections
  • Community paramedicine
  • Continuing medical education
  • Hydrant testing
  • Preplanning

It’s hard to imagine cutting any of these services, along with all of the other impacts noted above, but COVID-19 has had a significant impact on the American fire service that will certainly leave a lasting mark.

I encourage you to search FireRescue1.com for related resources to help manage the economic challenges ahead.

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